25 August 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/35

To the Poppy

While summer roses all their glory yield
     To crown the votary of love and joy,
     Misfortune's victim hails, with many a sigh,
     Thee, scarlet Poppy of the pathless field,
Gaudy, yet wild and lone; no leaf to shield
     Thy flaccid vest, that, as the gale blows high,
     Flaps, and alternate folds around thy head. –
     So stands in the long grass a love-crazed maid,
Smiling aghast; while stream to every wind
     Her garish ribbons, smeared with dust and rain;
     But brain-sick visions cheat her tortured mind,
And bring false peace. Thus, lulling grief and pain,
     Kind dreams oblivious from thy juice proceed,
     Thou flimsy, showy, melancholy weed.

Anna Seward

Our first association with the red poppy, particularly in this centennial year of the war's beginning, is likely to be World War I and Flanders Field. But there is an earlier association with the poppy: narcotic forgetfulness. Think of Iago gloating, once he has poisoned Othello's mind against Desdemona, "Not poppy nor mandragora / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep / Which thou owedst yesterday" (Othello, Act 3, scene iii, ll 27 - 30; "owedst" in the last line means "owned"). And a few decades after Seward wrote this poem, Keats, in his Ode to Autumn, could describe the personified season seated "on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep, / Drowsed with the fume of poppies." The symbolism of the drowsy druggy poppy, though augmented by its new associations with the dead of World War I, continue into our own time: remember the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz which knocks out the human and animal travelers to the Emerald City.

Seward begins not with the poppy of the title but with a contrasting flower, the summer rose. Summer here is the height of flowering season, but even these beautiful flowers yield their glories to "crown the votary of love and joy" – in other words, to garland the heads of lawful young lovers (presumably, in the context of the rest of the poem, young women). I am getting "lawful" from the word votary, which descends from the Latin word for vow, and which means not only one who is devoted or dedicated to something or someone, but which carries religious overtones: one, such as a monk or nun, bound by solemn religious vows. The rose-crowned young women, happily loving and joyfully loved, are clearly headed for the altar. So in her first two lines Seward sets up an ideal state of young love (roses and legitimacy!), which will serve as a foil for the rest of the poem.

She switches to her real subject with the third line: "Misfortune's victim hails, with many a sigh" (note that in the first two lines, it is the roses themselves which yield their glory; Misfortune's victim, by contrast, is the abandoned one calling out to the poppy). Given the opening lines, "Misfortune's victim" can only be a woman not just unhappy but, obviously, unfortunate in love: seduced and deserted, most likely. The implied smiles of the opening lines give way to sighs as this woman seeks the poppy in "pathless fields" (the lack of an existing, orderly path is a clear indication that she has wandered where she should not). The poppy, with another implicit reference to prostitution and other wayward sexual conduct, is scarlet and gaudy, yet also wild and lone, and without the shield even of a bare leaf (with the implication that the unlucky woman lacks support from family, friends, or village).

It's sometimes tempting for us to mock this sort of warning about sexual irregularity in women, or to see it as mostly a fear of women's sexuality, but in the context of 1799, when the poem was written, this is prudent advice: economic opportunities for women, outside of marriage to a decent man, were of course extremely limited, and could be limited even more by your social class, and contraception (outside of traditional and not always effective advice from a certain type of marginally respectable old woman) was not readily available. Morality is rooted in biology, and the feelings of shame around extra-marital sex and illegitimate children ultimately derive from harsh economic realities. We warn teenage girls today that getting pregnant is likely to derail their lives, and that was even truer two centuries ago.

Seward continues with her description of the poppy: it is showy and unprotected, so that its "flaccid vest" is left exposed to the winds. Its vest would be its petals; Seward deliberately blurs the distinction between flower and human. And the vest is flaccid: never a pleasant word. For us, words like flaccid and erect generally carry some kind of phallic charge; I would be extremely cautious about carrying this connotation over to a society that used less overtly sexualized language than we do – as a professor of mine once pointed out about Tristram Shandy, if you think something in it is a sexual pun, you're most likely right, and the same is true of, say, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists, but I'd tread with caution elsewhere – nonetheless, it is hard (perhaps it would be better if I said difficult) to avoid a sense of the phallic here, with the flaps (circumcision was not usual in eighteenth-century England, I believe) folding around the head as the lusty gale blows high.

Seward then turns this phallic poppy into an image of the unhappy woman (perhaps the androgynous metamorphosis here is another suggestion of sexual irregularity): she, the "love-crazed maid," is also isolated, standing in the long grass (again, the long grass implies an irregular field, and not a well-maintained park). She is smiling, but aghast – aghast means frightened or horrified, so her smiling suggests a disjunction between what she feels and how she can express it – perhaps love-crazed in the previous line means quite literally mentally unstable because of love. The poppy is gaudy, and her ribbons are garish. They are also "smeared with dust and rain" and "stream to every wind" – if the "gale blowing high" in an earlier line is seen as a symbol of lust, then here is another suggestion that prostitution – dirty, unsuited for decent society, available to any passing element – is in her tragic future.

The suggestions of mental instability caused by emotional pain continue: "brain-sick visions cheat her tortured mind." It's a harrowing and emphatic portrait of delusion: her brain is sick, she sees delusive visions rather than reality, these visions cheat her, her mind is tortured. As the poem closes, woman and poppy turn from images of each other into deluded patient and deceptive doctor: she would not be the first to find ultimately destructive relief in the products of the poppy (and again, though opium and tincture of laudanum sound rather romantic to us, these were drugs that laid waste to lives, just as crack and heroin do today). With the adjectives of the final line, which Seward emphasizes with italics, she sums up and warns against the poppy: it is flimsy, showy, and melancholy – not a flower, but a weed.

Yet I have to say – this may be my whorish late-twentieth / early twenty-first century taste speaking – despite the sincerity and wisdom of her caution, Seward seems to throw a certain amount of déclassé glamour on the poppy and the fallen woman. There are only two lines, at the very beginning, praising orderly love, and they are quite conventional in nature: the women are not characterized except as votaries of generic love and joy, and the roses seem sort of standard (I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein saying that roses in English-language poetry were dead until she brought them back to life with her famous line "a rose is a rose is a rose"). The poppy, and the unfortunate woman, though, are carefully and elaborately characterized, in a dramatic way that appeals to the senses. You get the feeling that Seward doesn't really blame this woman, or hold her responsible: she is "Misfortune's victim" rather than the victim of her own foolish choices. And her situation really may not be her fault at all; she wouldn't be the only woman, in eighteenth-century England or other times and places, to believe a man when she shouldn't have. I think we come away feeling that the poppy may have a rough life, but at least it's vivid and dramatic, while the roses are pretty but maybe a bit boring. There is a school of thought that the real hero of Paradise Lost is Satan, and though I firmly disagree with that school, I can't help feeling that something similar is actually going on here.

I took this from A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson.

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